veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Contradiction, Inconsistency and Impossibility

veryard projects > change > contradiction
we offer quotes on this page
on other pages
education, training and skills transfer

model reviews

information and advice on methods and tools

supporting materials - including patterns

“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.”
[Aldous Huxley, Do What You Will: ‘Wordsworth in the Tropics’]

“Qualitatively different contradictions can only be resolved by qualitatively different methods. … Some contradictions are characterized by open antagonism, others are not. In accordance with the concrete development of things, some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic develop into antagonistic ones, while others which were originally antagonistic develop into non-antagonistic ones.”
[Mao Tse-Tung, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
(Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1966) pp 50, 55]
Three Responses to Inconsistency




Thinking the UnthinkableMonsters: Notes on 
Proofs and Refutations
Related Concepts

Equivoque Weick
Khora Derrida

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Three Responses to Inconsistency

veryard projects > change > contradiction > 3 responses

Inconsistency may prompt a technocratic, moral or commercial response.

Suppose a man is found to have inconsistent identity or characteristics -- let's say one computer believes him to be married, while another believes him to be single.

One possible explanation for this is that the inconsistency refers to two different men -- perhaps father and son with the same name at the same address. A technocratic resolution is based on a simple EITHER/OR.  Either there are two men, with two different identities, or there is one man, and at least some of the computer data relating to him are incorrect or out-of-date. The inconsistency is resolved and removed by fixing the identifier and/or correcting the data.

In contrast to this, a moral response to this contradiction might be to imagine some lax moral behaviour on the part of the man himself, or elsewhere in the system (social or technical). A married man who sometimes claims to be unmarried (or permits people to believe him unmarried) might be on morally dangerous ground. A simple-minded moralist might be tempted to make instant moral judgements, based on the first signs of inconsistency. A fair and proper assessment of character would require more careful consideration and discretion, but this could still lead to some form of moral judgement.

A commercial (and morally cynical) response to detecting this inconsistency could be to highlight the man as a possible consumer of certain products and services -- from flowers and chocolates to legal representation.

The point here is that inconsistency sometimes reveals something interesting and important -- and there may be valid alternatives to the techocratic preference for correcting and smoothing the data. Professional auditors are taught that apparently trivial inconsistencies may yield clues to serious fraud. Psychologists (including some marketing experts) suggest that one's deepest desires may often be marked by apparent ambivalence or oscillation.  An approach to data management or personal identity that suppresses or erases inconsistency for the sake of convenience and seamless communication is systematically incapable of recognizing many of the subtleties of human behaviour.

Inconsistency can also reveal possible clashes of worldview between business partners or other stakeholders. One firm identifies a man as having two children, another firm identifies him as having no children. When we investigate this inconsistency, we find that he does indeed have two children, but they are grown-up and no longer live with him. Two different organizations have two different reasons for asking what is apparently the same question. But the difference in content reveals a deeper difference in meaning.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Inconsistency Tolerance

veryard projects > change > contradiction > tolerance

When we try to connect two communities or artefacts, or when we try to use information from multiple sources, we may have trouble with various types of inconsistency.
Logical Inconsistency. A logically impossible combination or juxtaposition. One source contradicts another source.
Practical Inconsistency. An empirically impossible combination or juxtaposition. 
example For example, two different men claiming to be Marilyn Monroe's father, or a hundred different women claiming to be her daughter. In the latter case, note that any two such claims may be pairwise consistent.
Temporal Inconsistency. Incompatible assumptions about sequence or pacing.
Semantic Inconsistency. Two different representations of the same fact. Conflicting identity.
example My website contains several book recommendations. Frankly I don't care whether you read the hardback edition or the paperback edition. However, when I link through to Amazon, I have to link to a specific edition (by ISBN number) rather than to the title.
Redundancy. There is no inconsistency in taking precautions against two mutually exclusive events, even if one cannot consistently believe that they will both occur.
example “A person may take his umbrella, or leave it at home, without any ideas whatsoever concerning the weather, acting instead on general principles such as maximin or maximax reasoning, i.e. acting as if the worst or the best is certain to happen. He may also take or leave the umbrella because of some specific belief concerning the weather. … Someone may be totally ignorant and non-believing as regards the weather, and yet take his umbrella (acting as if he believes that it will rain) and also lower the sunshade (acting as if he believes that the sun will shine during his absence).” [Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 84]

Inconsistency tolerance means the ability to make connections despite some level of inconsistency.
more Research Project RICES - Reasoning about Information Consistency across Enterprise Solutions
An Inconsistency Tolerant Model for Belief Representation and Belief Revision, by Samir Chopra and Rohit Parikh, in Proceedings of Sixteenth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence IJCAI-99, Stockholm, Sweden, Morgan Kaufmann. Abstract published in Bulletin of Symbolic Logic, Vol 5, Number 3, September 1999. Postscript version

Inconsistency Tolerance, L. Bertossi (Carleton Univ. CDN), P. Besnard (Univ. Toulouse, F), A. Hunter (Univ. College London, UK), T. Schaub (Univ. Potsdam, D)

Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving (Victor Lesser)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Belief Revision

veryard projects > change > contradiction > belief revision

more Belief Revision
An Inconsistency Tolerant Model for Belief Representation and Belief Revision, by Samir Chopra and Rohit Parikh, in Proceedings of Sixteenth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence IJCAI-99, Stockholm, Sweden, Morgan Kaufmann. Abstract published in Bulletin of Symbolic Logic, Vol 5, Number 3, September 1999. Postscript version

Parainconsistent Logic, Logical Philosophy, Mathematics, Informatics (Stanislaw Jaskowski Memorial Symposium)
Belief Change, from AGM to realistic models (Andreas Herzig & Renata Wassermann)
Research Focus (Akira Kawaguchi)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change


veryard projects > change > contradiction > escher

Some people dismiss the drawings of Escher -- in which monks walk up ever-ascending stairs, or water falls in a perpetual cycle -- as "nonsense" or "illusory". One correspondent concluded that our susceptibility to these drawings was an indication of the shortcomings of our brains.

In my view, this is an error. Escher's drawings draw attention to their drawing. They are therefore extremely realistic because they represent only themselves. Greater illusions are perpetrated by drawings that purport to represent genuine monks ascending genuine stairs.

One interesting consequence of Escher's drawings is our determined attempts to see them as if they represented something other than themselves, something "real". There is a perverse pleasure to be had in struggling with visual (or for that matter verbal) paradox. That indeed tells us something about the "shortcomings" of our brains.

It also tells us that our brains can accommodate -- even appreciate -- a degree of contradiction. This may be relevant to the human ability to manage contradictions, in business organizations and in "real life".

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Decoupling (as response to contradiction)

veryard projects > change > contradiction > decoupling

Under certain circumstances, decoupling may be a valid or understandable response to perceived contradiction or inconsistency.

Commissurotomy : The surgical separation of the two hemispheres of the brain, as an extreme treatment for epilepsy. The right hand really doesn’t know what the left hand is doing !

Watzlawick describes what he calls functional commissurotomy, produced by inconsistent or contradictory communications. He cites Bateson’s analysis of schizophrenia, where a mother’s cold body language belies her loving words, and the son becomes violent in response. The verbal communication is processed by the left hemisphere, the non-verbal by the right; the two hemispheres obtain incompatible images of the concept ‘mother’. There are three possible outcomes.

  1. One hemisphere inhibits the other, and represses the contradictory perception. If it is the right hemisphere that gains over the left, the son’s behaviour (including language) will be archaic, metaphorical, impulsive, illogical, in a word, psychotic.
  2. If the left hemisphere prevails, the outcome will most probably be constrained, perhaps even compulsive, but in any case emotionally flat, ‘cerebral’ behaviour.
  3. If the contradiction is not swept under the rug by the pseudosolution of a repression, the two hemispheres may paralyze each other, and the resulting polarization may eventually explode into panic or a violent abreaction.
[Paul Watzlawick, The Language of Change (New York, Basic Books, 1978) pp 36-7]
more Coupling
LeftBrain / RightBrain

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change veryard projects > change > contradiction
Last update December 2nd, 2003
Copyright © 2002-3 Veryard Projects Ltd